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Alex Ahmed Auto-transcribed by

James Parker (00:00:00) - Could you maybe kick things off just by telling us a little bit about yourself, your work and it just a bit of a general introduction.

Alex Ahmed (00:00:06) - Yeah. So my name is Alex Ahmed, I just finished my PhD in health informatics at Northeastern university. That’s located in Boston, Massachusetts in the us and in my dissertation work was, um, it started kind of with the goal of exploring voice training technology. I was coming out at the time as I was trans. And, um, I kind of saw this as like a project that would make me feel like that I was doing something worthwhile. Um, and it was like originating directly from my experience. And that was back in 2014. So that’s when I started working on this. And about six years later, I had a prototype out for, um, for an app that, um, was created by, by me and also a group of other people who came to be called project spectra. And this was, um, a, a community of about 20 people, um, that worked together for like a year and a half to make this a reality. So it was really grounded in like interviews that I conducted myself with other trans people about waste and then, um, kind of taking those experiences and translating them into a potential design. So there was kind of that grounding and lived experience. And then using that to like, try to figure out what would be useful, but also examining what’s currently out there from a sort of critical, um, queer theory lens. So those were like the three main components of the project. And yeah, so hearing him,

James Parker (00:01:56) - It’s an amazing project. Can you, can you say something about the, sort of the nature of the intervention, that project spectrum makes? Like what, what was the field of voice training apps like, or perhaps it even its history beyond, you know, the apps and, and so what, what is it that project spectra sort of attempts to do in that context? Alex Ahmed (00:02:15) - Yeah. So, um, voice training as a clinic, as a clinical field for specifically for trans people is relatively young. I don’t think it’s necessarily like the case that no trans people went to speech therapists, like with the goal of feminizing masculinizing, or just generally modifying their, their voice before, like, you know, the nineties or the early two thousands. But that is when the first like clinical handbook for speech therapists working with trans clients comes out. Um, and then that text has been revised and updated several times since then. But voice training, like from that clinical standpoint with practices geared specifically towards trans people is pretty new. And the intervention that I was trying to pursue was on a few different levels. I think number one is the, like the way that clinical understandings of trans people are structured by these normative ideas. Um, and this goes back a long time.

Alex Ahmed (00:03:32) - So even outside the realm of voice it was coming. Yeah. The practice for transgender people, um, who were trying to obtain hormones or gender transition treatments of various kinds, um, had to go through a lot of barriers on their way. And a lot of those barriers came from clinical and medical institutions. So trans people would need to, um, to sort of prove that they were sufficiently trans I guess, and that, that happened through a lot of different ways. So one was, you had to kind of fit the profile. Um, and that profile was kind of like, Oh, you had, um, you had thought about like being, you know, a woman or a man, like from an early age, you played with dolls, you played with cars when everyone else it wasn’t like that kind of thing. So there’s this narrative, this life transit, um, this life trajectory that, um, people were expected to, um, to adhere to. And if you didn’t, then it was strange that like, that may be suggested that, Oh, it actually, it, you’re not transsexual. You may think you are actually just a sexual fetish or it’s just a, it’s a phase or it’s, um, it’s something else. So this actually happened to me, um, when I went to, um, a therapist for the first time to sort of talk through these issues. And that was only in 2012.

Alex Ahmed (00:05:04) - So not too long ago. And of course, you know, that person, I went to isn’t representative necessarily of like all clinicians, but it was standard. I think enough that like, unless you were in something very progressive, uh, leaning that in like a clinical center that was more progressive than you could expect that. So these like normative ideas were sort of structured into the very act action of like transitioning. And so that included a history and also like the present. So you had to like prove your transness through what they call the real life experience. So you had to essentially present, look, act as female or male or whatever, you know, you were attempting to pursue transition, but you had to do that without any, any hormones or any, like, you know, if you wanted to have like any sort of like surgeries or anything like that, like that you couldn’t do until you had spent a certain amount of time, like a few, you know, a month, a year, whatever, as this real life experience, you know, as the gender you claim to be, and this was sort of like you had to prove it.

Alex Ahmed (00:06:24) - So this kind of extending also into the voice world, because voice is just one of those things that you had to perform in order to stay sufficiently or convincingly state the claim to like a gender. And so that’s kind of, um, partly where, you know, the clinical aspect comes into it and this isn’t a claim that like no trans people ever went to a clinical voice therapist, like independently it’s that, you know, independent of all of this, like institutionally like mandated stuff, like went to a therapist and said, I want to do this. Um, because certainly they did. And certainly they do, we do, but this is sort of like the middle, you do the social milieu or how this is happening, you know, there’s no really there’s no world in which like a trans person is not thinking about these things too. It’s both, what do I want and what is also expected to be?

Alex Ahmed (00:07:24) - So for voice we were seeing in like just the clinical world and also in these apps, um, some of which I looked into like, um, you know, early on, um, were like presenting them, presenting a certain idea of like gender of femininity and masculinity that was very stereotypical and very like narrow. And I can show you again, those apps are that I just showed you earlier, but this is kind of like what we were trying to work against. So it’s the technology design resulting from this, like these like social pressures and also the social pressures themselves, which, um, which were structuring the designs and technology in the first place.

James Parker (00:08:13) - Could you maybe describe, um, some of those sort of normative for narrow features, um, just as a way into describing the difference that project spectra is and for, um, you know, uh, I think, um, perhaps if it’s possible to do it orally rather than visually for the purposes of this interview, that would help.

Alex Ahmed (00:08:35) - Yeah. So, um, the way that voice is presented and the way that gender is presented and, um, in voice training apps kind of assumes a lot of things, not always, but often assumes a lot of things about, um, what you’re trying to do with your voice. So in one app it assumes that, or it tells you that in order to be sufficiently feminine, you need to be able to hold an 83 pitch. So 220 Hertz. And so the first exercise, the app gives you is a tuner that if you’re on a three it’s green, and if you’re not it’s red and it’s sort of, it’s designed kind of sorta like a target. And if you’re off by a little, it turns red. So by definition, it’s like narrowing, it’s like structuring, like this is where you began, you began. And from there, it, it, it just continues, right? So it’s like, do you, are you like being sufficiently breathy? And like your tone is your sentences elevating at the end, like as a sort of up, um, up speak is con is the common word for it? Is that like, you sort of talk like this and that’s what you’re trained on. So you’re sort of meant to mimic what the teacher is doing. So this is very interesting in that a lot of.

Alex Ahmed (00:10:08) - A lot of apps don’t do this. They don’t usually show a human face and like, have you mimic a human? Um, so like think of like pretty much any app you’ve ever used, right? Like you never see a person there or people don’t talk to you, like maybe you see an in an embedded video, but like in some of these apps that are for voice training, the image of the therapist is very central. And that kind of gives this impression that like, okay, this is my ambassador. Like this is the person who was welcoming me into the gender that I want to be. And so has the knowledge, the credibility, the history, the expertise that I need to copy and to, to achieve my, my gender, my gender goals. That’s how these apps are, um, explaining themselves or presenting themselves to be user. So this is really problematic because most, if not all transgender speech therapists that I’ve, or sorry, not transgender, the speech therapist, speech therapist, who is to like attend to transgender clients, um, they’re all cis-gender women and they’re all white.

Alex Ahmed (00:11:25) - That’s the sort of general rule that I’ve seen. I’ve never seen a speech therapist that isn’t one of those. And so when you are asked to mimic someone who is cis-gender and white and North America and European, then that is the femininity and masculinity that you learn, or voice-wise right. It’s, it’s white, um, European in femininity and masculinity, and that is also reinforced in the imagery. So all the there’s a lot of like pictures in these apps and a lot of colors, stereotypically like red and blue, pink and blue. Um, and the people in the app, there are a lot of stock photos of like women in dresses and men and suits and, um, like mouths, like lipsticks mouths. It’s like a common visual motif and these apps and there’s like only like three. And so two out of, three of them have lipsticks mouths.

Alex Ahmed (00:12:37) - So I’m saying it’s common, which is weird, right. Like why, you know, is it because voice equals mouth plus woman equals lipstick? I mean, it’s just, it’s very uninspired. Yeah. So that’s, I guess intervention, intervention C or whatever. The third component of the intervention is like, let’s just clean up this design. Like let’s make it not weird. And, um, you know, not sort of make it not like the user has to either identify with these images or look at them and be like, Oh, why is that there? Just from a design perspective, we wanted to improve on that.

Joel Stern (00:13:24) - I mean, I was, I was interested in, um, going further into, um, the way in which, um, into the functionality of, of project spectra and, and, you know, cause I had to look at the, um, get hub and, and just, I’m just not, I’m not sort of quite technical enough to sort of understand like the processing and the algorithms and the different sort of capacity of the, of the application and what it does. But I also wanted to, um, just go back to the, the methodology where you were talking about, you know, doing staging a lot of interviews, um, with trans people about, about voice. And I was just wondering if, um, you could say something about what, you know, what you learned from those interviews and ha and how they, um, helped kind of set up the objectives of the project. And then, you know, perhaps that could sort of lead into some of the functionality of the application itself.

Alex Ahmed (00:14:19) - Yeah. Happy to. So, um, I did 10 interviews with trans people and code for the Boston area, and these were about an hour long and mostly in person. And, um, I asked them about just their general, like history with the voice, like have they thought about it? Have they used any, have they been to a speech therapist? Have they used any technologies? And if they have, I just probed to understand what that was like for them, you know, just sort of at a basic level, like emotionally. And so, uh, from that sort of going into, um, uh, sort of like speculative, like design, like.

Alex Ahmed (00:15:09) - Question by saying, like, if there were something that you could use, like what would it do? And so while a focus of it was definitely like, let’s figure out how to design a thing. I was really, or mainly interested in the emotional or like the like life experience of these folks and like where they were coming from. And, um, there was a lot of variety in people’s responses. Some of whom were kind of on the fence about whether or not they wanted to pursue voice. Um, some were kind of just angry about it. Like I like don’t like that I have to do this. I feel like it’s something I have to do rather than something I want to do. Others are, we’re really invested in it on a personal level. And some of them were, um, sort of midway. Like they were very, they were like skeptical, but they were also like, there are some things here that I want, and there are some things that I’m rejecting.

Alex Ahmed (00:16:15) - So for example, those one trans woman who said that, um, there are some aspects of voice that are sex and some are gender. So for her sex components of the voice are like things that can be related to like biology, like, like pitch and resonance are sort of like, you know, generally speaking, like cisgender women have like, you know, shorter vocal tracks or whichever. I actually don’t remember exactly what the anatomical relationship is, but for her, like these were things that were squarely like sex. On the other hand, she said like other things are gender, like uptalk is gender vocal fry. So like talking in a sort of gravelly low, like, like a voice that’s also gender. Um, and so she, she wanted to focus on what she called the sex aspect. Um, not everyone certainly is going to agree with that distinction or separation.

Alex Ahmed (00:17:22) - Um, but it’s, it was her way of thinking about it and her way of deciding like what to do and what not to do. I also found that people were sort of creatively using existing technologies to like jury rig them into things that would work for them. So since there were really no like apps that fulfilled their purposes, they would just use regular like recording tools or they would use like apps that, that they could sort of just have on and just look at throughout the day to sort of see where they are in terms of their voice. And these would just be like general purpose, like pitch measuring tools. And these same tools would be things that their speech therapists would recommend because there were no like other options. So we immediately saw like that as like, Oh, like it’s clear that even speech therapists are just suggesting people use pitch tuners.

Alex Ahmed (00:18:25) - So there is a, there is a way for us to like to move here that and do something that’s useful. So that became kind of, um, one of our goals, which is to like, have something that didn’t necessarily like give you an entire like lesson plan for like how to train your voice, but rather just like a companion that like someone could use if they wanted to, to get like a, a sense of where their voices and also to, um, to strengthen their voice, regardless of whether they’re like going for. So we ended up with a set of voice strengthening exercises, which included like holding a note and that note itself, isn’t like, there’s no like gender component to that. Like you really just choose whichever one is the most comfortable for you. And it doesn’t matter actually, which one you choose. It’s just an exercise that is meant to strengthen like your, your vocal chords.

Alex Ahmed (00:19:28) - So it’s not unlike what a, like a seed student would do. And so that, that was kind of intentional. Like at first glance, it’s sort of like you open it up and there’s like, you know, it just says, like pick a note to hold. And, uh, we did that because, um, a lot of the existing trans voice resources, both made by clinic clinicians and those made by trans people like, you know, this is the community involve a lot of repetition, a lot of exercise, a lot of training. And we were sort of in a position that we didn’t want to endorse or denounced like any existing, like.

Alex Ahmed (00:20:09) - Resource, but instead we were just like, here’s something that like, could be improved, could improve your vocal health. So that’s where that’s the direction we decided to go. And part of it was because in the interviews we saw like so much variability and like what people wanted, that there was really no way to make something without, um, sort of having a, a stance on like, Oh, we endorse this. We think that like this path towards like vocal femininity is like better than this other one, because also like we wanted users of really any or no gender identity to like, feel like they could use it. Um, which is not something that, um, either Listening apps allowed for. It was most, it was pretty much just either you want a male voice or a female voice quote unquote, and you can see that in, um, in the apps that exist now, which don’t even like express the possibility of being non binary at all. So, yeah.

Sean Dockray (00:21:17) - Side of the, like sort of tool you’re hinting at it already right now, but outside of the tools and sort of exercises, I’m wondering how project spectrum as an app sort of does some of this like pedagogical work or how it sort of participates in sort of ideology, ideological kind of construction, you know, in the same way that you have been criticizing that the other apps have, you know, the sort of Midwestern SIS, you know, women as personality like, um, and the lips and everything that obviously there’s a, there’s a huge component of sort of like design as to how to structure how those exercises are laid out or how the kind of narrated within kind of this overall program, you know, of your own making. Um, I’m just wondering, like what, what, how did those discussions go with project spectra and how did you come to the, how do you come to, um, agreements or about what the sort of like graphic layout and what the kind of pedagogical kind of dimension of the app and how to try to find your way through these exercises is how does that work?

Alex Ahmed (00:22:29) - Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah. So, I mean, just like trans people, like in general have a lot of different ideas about like what boys should intake, like what voice training should or should not entail. Like, so to like our group was really heterogeneous and there definitely were like moments of disagreement. And, um, I think that played out in a lot of, um, complex ways. I think for one we sort of wanted to do away with pretty much any, um, symbology of, of gender. So like we don’t have any of that. It’s pretty much just, it’s a clean layout. Like, you know, non-gendered color schemes. Like it’s like mostly like greens and purples and oranges. I’m a fan of that color scheme, but anyways, and, uh, the, the language is very sort of supportive. Like that was one of our goals. Like we wanted users to feel supported, but not judged or like condescended to, so that kind of met, like I met a few things like one, um, you should be able to sort of be in dialogue with the app rather than it being like, this is what you should do.

Alex Ahmed (00:23:54) - Like you, you need to be at two 20 Hertz and you need to repeat after me. And, you know, so instead we kind of have it, like the beginning of the app is like a series of questions. And so, so the beginning is like, you know, what’s your name? And then, you know, you put in your name and then it asks you, what do you want to do with your voice? And so you are, you’re allowed to pick from a series of options. So that’s, I’d like my voice to be more androgynous. I like my voice to be more masculine. And I like to be my voice to be more feminine. And I don’t know, I’m just exploring. So you’re not really like immediately like shoehorned into this like trajectory. You’re more like, um, we wanted it to be like sort of a, a branching path where like exploration is like encouraged and like play and like expression in a like sort of fun way or encouraged. Um, and the degree to which we actually accomplish that, like, you know, can definitely be up for debate and, you know, a continuous process of revising and iterating, but that those were our intentions.

Alex Ahmed (00:25:09) - To, um, to have that be the mood. And so users can, um, pick, like, if they have like a specific goal for where they want to be, like, does that be two 20 Hertz? It could be anything, you know, in any range, like, and then like throughout the app, like your, your pitch as it’s measured by app is like, is going to be like, compared to that, um, that, that self selected marker. And then alongside that, we just have these completely gender agnostic, like strengthening exercises, um, which we suggest within the app that you do, like twice a day. Um, just so that like you’re not straining herself. So any like suggestions that we make are purely from that lens, just, uh, you know, don’t hurt yourself. It’s okay. Like take it easy. Um, so that’s kind of like the, the tone of it is just like, um, you know, make sure to take breaks, take care of yourself, like, remember that pitches and everything.

Alex Ahmed (00:26:18) - And this is just, uh, you know, a way to, to reduce strain. That’s sort of what we ended up with. That’s the answer. The other part of your question there, there definitely were folks on the team who one of their, to be a, a complete guide, like a sort of step-by-step like, this is how you feminize your voice. And that, that was their, um, their interest as a trans feminine person. So that’s the guide that they were working on a complete set of exercises, a Hutton entire pedagogical roadmap to like get to like a, you know, a feminine voice. So it was there, it was their wish to, to create an app like that. And part of that included, um, exercises that, um, that we didn’t end up including in the app, but that like we had created an algorithm to, um, to detect. So that’s a residence exercise, which the trans voice training, internet, community calls, big dog, small dog, where you pant like a big dog and then pant like a small dog. So that looked like you could try to do, you know, if you want it’s like, so the idea is when you pant like a small dog, you’re, you’re like sort of configuring your like vocal resonance in a way that like primes it to like, be more feminine because the, the vocal cords and the musculature of your mouth is shifted up in that way, because you’re, um, if you can like, feel your larynx, it’s like, if you like, kind of like a small dog, kinda like a small dog,

Alex Ahmed (00:28:17) - You can feel it going down. So the idea is that a raised larynx is good because that makes your resonance, um, more, um, like more bright, is it like the, the speech science term for it? Or if you paint like a big dog, then your voice is like, your vocal is darker to use that, to use their phrase again. So some larynx, X practice and larynx training is like very common in these online communities, which project spectra as an online also, um, we’re, we’re like drawing a lot of these same people. And I can get to that later as sort of like a limitation of our process, because those are the people we worked with. Those are the people we found. So the larynx exercise is like very disagree. It’s very controversial in like the speech therapy world where some speech therapists would, would say like, don’t do it ever.

Alex Ahmed (00:29:22) - Cause actually it could hurt your voice. And some might say like, Oh, do it. But like only if you like really want to, or like, if you are, your specific goals would be student to it and would work with you to like, get to, uh, get to an understanding on that. But, but otherwise like online, big dogs, small dialogue, or like meringues exercises are, um, like pretty much universally recommended. It’s like, do this. If you want to sound feminine, do this, do you want to sound masculine? Like you need to, you need to have control of your lyrics in order to maximize your potential. And, and like, you also see this in like singing, singing teachers will say some more things. And there’s also similar controversies about, about lyrics, like movement and training, um, in that world. So.

Alex Ahmed (00:30:10) - Basically, um, I, to get, to make it more concrete, I was working, um, with a speech therapist in the Boston area during this project at the same time as I was working with, um, these folks, the project Spector folks online. And so there was this disagreement where like, I sort of came to my collaborator and I was like, Hey, like, you know, the folks I’m working with, they want to do a larynx exercise, um, include that in the app. And she was like, Oh, I wouldn’t recommend that. And so I was like, Oh, okay, this person’s on my dissertation committee. I kind of like to make sure that she’s happy the same time. I don’t want to like, sort of betray my ideals of like, wanting to make this app like designed to like buy in, in the community. Um, and so like, that kind of brings me to like one of the central contradictions of like this work.

Alex Ahmed (00:31:09) - And, um, and that was like the fact that I was very much like in the academic world, like being, um, sort of held to all this academic, like rules and standards and codes and like, you know, deadlines and deliverables that I needed to do. And so a lot of the suggestions that came from the community that I was working with actually didn’t end up in the app that wasn’t true universally, like definitely the app like was designed by and coded by us, but like I had a hand in all of it, you know, so to say that, um, stay that it was a sort of pure process would definitely be, um, would be false and I definitely can’t claim it, so I won’t, but yeah, so it came through in that way and that sort of, you know, the debates and discussions we had, um, kind of led us to be like, okay, well, you know, we’ll leave it out of this version, but you know, maybe in a future version you can put it in, you know, knowing that like, you know, because it’s open source, like we could just keep adding to it, like, um, beyond the life of the projects.

Alex Ahmed (00:32:23) - So, so that’s kind of where we ended up

James Parker (00:32:25) - And that’s a nice segue actually into the next question I was going to ask, which is, you know, how, how has it been taken up and what futures do you imagine for it in terms of scale or design or anything? Really. Alex Ahmed (00:32:39) - So when, when I came out with the sort of first release, which was in October of last year, it was kind of like the beta and we were going to like share it with people, get their feedback. And the same time I, as a requirement of my degree, I had to do, um, an evaluation study where I had to give the app to some people and get their feedback and opinion on it. So I kind of thought, okay, like that’s kind of a reasonable, like, like way for this to segue into the next chapter of the study. And in fact, like the app had to be done by that time in order to have enough time to run a study. And like the few months I had left before graduation project spectra kind of like stopped being involved in the evaluation study. Cause that was like, Holy done.

Alex Ahmed (00:33:37) - Like in Boston, like through people I could recruit in person, um, and like get approved through like the institutions, like review board and stuff. So that formal part of the study happened and was happening right. When hope it hit. So my dissertation kind of ends early and that like, I, um, I had had two people who use the app for a month and I interviewed them after that month. And I started got their sense of like how it worked for them or didn’t work for them. And so that was kind of the ending of the project. Like I wrote it up and defended my thesis and then I sort of moved on to the next chapter of my life. And there was some movement in project spectra even after I graduated. So there was like a company, a startup that was like interested in like working with us and who like was talking with me. And I was sort of like saying like, don’t talk to me, talk to the group, like, you know, I don’t want to be like a leader of this. And so I kind of was encouraging them to like, Oh, like just talk to the discord, like community and see if they want to help you, like, you know, flush out these ideas more because I kind of felt that I had sort of lived out in my like stint as like the de facto, like.

Alex Ahmed (00:34:59) - Person calling the shots, like person saying like, actually this is what needs to be in the app. Cause like, Oh, I got it. I got to finish it so I can like defend and stuff. So I sort of felt like I wanted to like, let go a little bit with the hopes that like, Oh, like maybe like things will get taken up, but it kind of didn’t unfortunately. So, um, I mean, maybe COVID has to do with this, but like, you know, after March or so, like when I finished my dissertation study mostly and uh, graduated like a month or two later after I had written pieces, it’s been pretty quiet on the discord, which is a shame and I’m not really sure what to do about it. Um, because I would like it to be seen by more people and to, you know, to get more feedback on it.

Alex Ahmed (00:35:50) - I know that like, it’s definitely not done, you know, it does a few things pretty well. Um, but like the people who I interviewed who had used it for a month, um, they definitely had a lot of criticism and feedback and a wasn’t universally negative. Like they did like some things about it, but yeah, like to claim that it’s like a finished product, it’s definitely not, it’s not, definitely not true. So I, yeah, I mean, I would hope to keep doing it. And part of why I had stopped was because I needed to get another job because I had finished my degree. I didn’t have any, every job, I didn’t have any income. So I started doing part-time web development, like a contract gig. And I felt like, cause I had not on the academic job market too. And um, I had struck out I didn’t get anything. And so, um, I was like, you know what, fuck it. I’m just gonna like go into industry. I’m gonna like, just do whatever my boss tells me in KB.

Alex Ahmed (00:36:53) - And, um, and yeah, like sort of leave this sort of academic life behind and sort of just like work on whatever projects I want. So that’s kind of where it’s at. I mean, I, I think I might like to work on it again someday, but I guess I kind of would just want to hope that like the community will sort of revive again, cause there was a lot of people involved in it and on the channel, I think it’s just that like, without like a direction, it’s just people sitting in a channel and since, since it’s discord people, aren’t inside the channels doing other stuff and like talking to other people or doing whatever they do. So, you know, there was not really a impetus to do anything right now.

Sean Dockray (00:37:37) - How’s he going to say? I think that’s such a common, not common, but I mean, it is a sort of a common, like a open source project situation. I found myself in it personally, a number of times of, um, you know, you build these community projects and try not to be sort of, um, a leader let’s say, or a spokesperson or, you know, like you want it to have a momentum of its own, but clearly you, you invest inject some momentum into it. And then, um, it’s not so easy to pull yourself out and not have all that momentum sort of disappear, but I am interested in this next step that you’ve taken. I mean, I realize it’s, um, it’s a little bit just a, um, a consequence of the academic job market being just like horrific at the moment and just in general, but also, you know, at this particular moment, uh, and that you find yourself in kind of web development.

Sean Dockray (00:38:29) - Um, because like I actually think it’s interesting cause I, I also sort of need on occasion to, um, like actually solidify my, my income situation through similar means. So I, I empathize and recently that kind of world has been taken over by this like a user centered design IDEO kind of, uh, rhetoric, which you talk about in the methodology of the paper on project spectra. And, um, what I’m trying to do is connect that to something else that I’ve found, which is recently in those worlds, you know, because, um, voice interfaces are kind of taking off just as a, as a, you know, there were, there was like websites and there were apps. And now I think people are like a lot of these web firms are kind of developing for voice specifically. And so you bring a really interesting and important perspective to that. And I guess I was just wondering, you know, you can pick any part of that question to talk about, but what I’m interested in is either you expanding a little bit more on this kind of like critique of user-centered design, as well as, um, thinking about as it kind of applies itself to voice interfaces and Machine Listening more generally, like how, how you sort of see that playing out, particularly with your experience of doing projects, spectrum.

Alex Ahmed (00:39:52) - Yeah. So actually, um, today was in a meeting with some grad students.

Alex Ahmed (00:40:01) - And, um, for context, I’m a postdoc now at Carnegie Mellon and just started, I don’t know how I got here, but I’m doing that now. Um, but so I was in this reading group of, for like, um, tech injustice, which my advisor, Sarah Fox runs. And so one of, one of the, um, things we were talking about in that, um, in that reading group was like, what is the responsibility of like an individual designer? If the technology is doing something socially deleterious. So like, say for example, um, you’re creating like a machine learning system that is going to end up determining, like, who goes to jail longer or like who gets healthcare or like whose insurance claims get denied or whatever. And so I think that the, um, like the user centered design IDEO model kind of like keeps us in this world of like the individual user and like, and like the individual developer who has these tech skills, who’s like trying to like understand the user and like, you know, who is the user?

Alex Ahmed (00:41:18) - And like, it, it, it sort of like constraints the, the world of inquiry into like, just these two parties. So for example, like you end up unable to talk about how, like, you know, like user centered design is becoming like prominent in like the military. Like, and so we ended up being like absurd and saying like, okay, how do we like maximize user centered design principles for like war planes? And it’s like, um, like who is the, okay. The, yeah, like, okay, making life easy for the user. I E the people flying the fucking bombers, like is not going to be good, like that’s actually bad. Um, and so like, and the, and like, I think like students, like, I kind of like want to approach, like, I, new role is like slightly higher on the academic totem. Like, I shouldn’t be set up on the academic ladder to like, be like, you know, let’s like nudge folks, like, sort of thinking more like on the systems level.

Alex Ahmed (00:42:28) - Like, and if, even if we’re thinking about politics,

Alex Ahmed (00:42:30) - Like maybe thinking about politics and like, Oh, not Leslie neoliberal way, but it’s hard because like the dominant ideology, the field of design user centered design is user centered. And it’s not like really talking about like these problems. And so you end up

Alex Ahmed (00:42:48) - Stuck in like, Oh, like, what am I as an India,

Alex Ahmed (00:42:50) - The visual designer they’re going to do to like, make this better. And that can be like really, um, problematic, I mean, in, in more than, than what I just mentioned. So, yeah. I mean, I think that, like my wish my, my like, sincere hope would be that like, people think about like these things in terms of like, not like, how do I do a better job, but like, who controls what? And like, who has power to do what? And like, if we think about it in those terms, then we can think about like, okay, actually we need to, we need to be fighting against this. We need to be like, fighting against that. We need to organize in this way. We need to strategize and like make collective demands of these people. So, and, but that’s like, that’s organizing talk. That’s like union talk. That’s like, not really something that like, people want to hear, especially these corporations that are shelling out big bucks for like, you know, design experts now. So, yeah. I mean, I feel like the corporatized, like design world is definitely like intertwined with the academic design world. And I don’t really know, like, if there’s any real solution to this aside from like just burning it all down, but here we are. So, yeah,

James Parker (00:44:17) - That’s a great answer. I mean, it’s, so it’s so sort of simpatico, I suppose, with what we’re, who we’re trying to, you know, the politics of this project. Do you have any thoughts on the sort of the specific voice user interface or Machine Listening angle, um, or even opening out to think about those sort of agenda politics of voice assistance or Machine Listening more generally?

Alex Ahmed (00:44:41) - Yeah. Um, this is weird stuff. So like I recently saw a, um, Twitter thing that was like a new, like gender lists, uh, voice assistant.

Alex Ahmed (00:44:55) - And they listened to it. And I was like, uh, I mean, it’s like, kind of sounds like meaning, like, and so it was like this weird feeling where I was like, I’m not a generalist. Like what, so why, so I feel like it can like this sort of drive to like, degender, everything is like, really, I kind of bothers me because like, I mean, not to say that, like, you know, we shouldn’t like destroy this fucked up gender binary system, but like also we can’t just like, pretend it doesn’t exist, you know? And that, like, you know, if I’m listening to something marketed as gender neutral and I, and I have like opinions about it that, you know, I, that I’m gendering it in my mind, then it’s like, what, what have we really accomplished? I mean, like the, the feeling of gendering something, or like being gendered is like not affected by the like, desire to get rid of gender.

Alex Ahmed (00:45:57) - And like, I feel like that can affect, like, I don’t know, folks who, folks who do like, feel that this is again, misrepresenting them to see like, Oh, like this isn’t gendered voice. And me thinking like, well, is it because I know a lot of women who have voices in that register, I know some men who have voices in that register, like non-binary folks would also, I think I can’t speak obviously for them, but just like knowing, knowing a lot of non binary folks would say like non binary is not the like mathematical, some of like male and female, or like the mathematical, like overlap of male and female, you know what I mean? And so

James Parker (00:46:46) - Is it the genderless voice assistance or a voice user interfaces sort of buy into an ideology of pitch? Basically they sort of while like trying to opt out of certain kinds of ideologies agenda that they’ve actually re inscribing the one that tethers gender to pitch.

Alex Ahmed (00:47:07) - Yeah. And like, and I mean, like, I, I’m not like saying that I’m above this, like our app also includes this because we wanted it to be useful in that way. I mean, even if folks, if folks were interested, they have the ability to like, not participate in that. Um, but like if, if they did want to and couldn’t, and that would also be a design issue. So the idea that you can like opt out of ideology, I think is totally wrong, you know, I don’t think it’s like not a worthwhile like, goal to try to do like something that is better, but, um, I think it would have to be something more than let’s pretend it doesn’t exist because it does. I mean, that’s why I

Joel Stern (00:47:54) - Think, um, when you were talking before about sort of exploration and experimentation, um, as a core value of, of spectra, it’s in a way that works against the sort of normative, you know, inscription of say pitch to gender, because it, it allows you to arrive somewhere that is expressive and perhaps, um, also liable to change according to however you feel is sort of from day to day or, or et cetera. And I was, I was sort of thinking before also about, you know, the relationship to singing apps and the way in which, you know, a great thing is throughout history have often circumvented gender expectations or, or had totally non-conforming voices, which then sort of signify a certain kind of imagination and creativity. And so it sort of seems like that’s part of, um, if not an answer part of the, you know, methodologically, something that, that we should be valuing here.

Alex Ahmed (00:49:06) - Yeah. And I think it kind of like brings back the focus away from like, what does, what do other people think of me? And like, what do I want to think about myself? Which is something that like, like myself, I’ve dealt with a lot, like, you know, just like understanding like, okay, how do I fit in, in all of this? And like, to be hearing so much of like, actually you’re not trans because XYZ, or like actually, like in order to be trans to have this XYZ, like childhood memory or like, you know what I mean? So like, instead of that, or like, you know, even in the context of boys, like in order to have like a feminine voice, you could have XYZ. So instead of that, like to say, like,

Alex Ahmed (00:49:51) - How do you want to express yourself? You know, how, how do you want to, like, how do you want to be like, um, in, in your life, you know, like how do you want to, um, to present? I think that doesn’t sort of say like that these norms don’t exist instead. It’s saying like, we know the exist, but like fuck them. Right. Like

Joel Stern (00:50:18) - I think, fuck, it might be a nice, a nice note to end on as well. If we cut the recording right there.